Polarities and Paradox
A celebrity suicide reminds us of the frailty of the human condition at odds perhaps with our notions of worldly success and achievement. When we learnt that Robin Williams had killed himself in August 2014, there was an outpouring of public shock and sadness. Then mental illness was back in the news.
Over 45 years I have seen the taboo and stigma lift. People are willing to talk about their terrible personal journeys in and out of dark inner worlds. Others resonate with their own ill stories. As I do.
Nevertheless it is still a big thing to openly admit to this affliction of a mental illness. My own life has been interspersed with long episodes of clinical depression; these have been the biggest of polarities in my life. I tip into serious mental illness from a place of health. It happens so quickly over a few days that I can not catch and hold it back. The first aged 21, the last as I turned 60. No celebration for either significant birthday.
Mental Illness and Writing
In the acute phase of my last illness I could not write at all; I was incapacitated and distressed both emotionally and physically. As the winter months of 2009 dragged on, I was fortunate that at some point my writing colleagues encouraged me to write.
Then in May I had a curious dream. A dream about a house by the sea. It came towards the end of my illness, but I could never have known that. It was a prescient dream and very soon I was about to hit the turning point, and start to get better very quickly. Here is the description:
There is a floor I do not know about in the middle of this house. I’ve just discovered this spacious storey where there is a room with high ceilings and a huge modern window looking out to sea, right over the ocean. The house is built high up on a hill-side. The window is open bringing salty fresh air into the room, which has a residual scent of thick warm fabric and seasoned oak. Apart from the window, it’s an old fashioned room with thick brocade curtains on the other wall. The counterpane is luxuriously panelled, tempting for the finger- tips to smooth the rich colours of reds and golds on the big oak framed bed. This faces a wall of shelves from floor to ceiling all neatly stacked with books. The floor is seasoned oak planks. I am so pleased to discover this room that I shall make it my own. My daughter is with me. I hug her and say: go and tell Mummy I am better.
(Chapter 1 – Dream Snatcher: book ms.)
I heard myself speak in the dream and I didn’t mean my Mother, I meant myself as Mummy. Though by that stage I was mostly Mum to my university student daughter.
One of my writing friends had driven us to the coast for a walk. The English Channel was in turmoil – like myself – with grey white-flecked waves, different from the ocean in my dream. It was too windy to write outside so we sat in the car and wrote.
Letter from My Dream Room
The letter is a good form for exploratory writing. I wrote the one which follows as if from the dream itself on a yellow lined A4 page. At the bottom I had scrawled: gut implosion. I still felt dreadful.
Please come in, open my door, step inside and look around me as if for the first time. Yes, I am your dream-room in a dream house. In a far-away place. This house is perched, no I am wrong it is not perched, it is solidly built into the side of a cliff.
I am the dream-room, high enough up for my window to give you fantastic views of the ocean. When the wind is blowing inland (but always with a warm breeze) the air coming into me is fresh with a salty tang.
You come with no luggage I notice. You only have the clothes you stand up in. The floor is welcoming for your feet. Spread your toes out, stretch up, lean on the window-sill, take in the blues of the ocean. Lean a little more, spread your feet a little firmer and there you are half out of the window feeling sun-warmth, breeze, the heat.
Breathe in this good clean salted air. Let it travel through you cleansing all that is within. Smell it. Isn’t it both salty and scented with the seasoned oak from my interior? All that is within you may be healed in this room, which is me.
I am full of light. Stay here for the light, for clarity, which you believed you had lost. It is here in me. Come to the window. Look out across the ocean – breathe in the clean air. This is what you need.
With newly found affection
A Place of Healing
Astonishingly, my own dream was offering me an imaginary place of healing. This writing must have come from a well-part of myself, which as I wrote made me feel relieved. When I stopped writing, all the distress flooded back again.
There were simple instructions: come to the window, breathe in the clean air and as I imagined myself re-entering the space of the dream-room, that reality mirrored those exact sensations in my mind and body. The dream writing became potent with the natural presence of good things. What could be more healing than that?
Naturally at the time I didn’t realize the significance, but in the weeks when I was getting better, I often thought of the dream house. It was a transitional time between being ill and becoming well again. In time, the ill feelings receded but the imaginary safe room with its healing qualities had staying power. And it remains in my mind all these years later to visit whenever I want. It shows how the mysterious nature of writing presented me with a paradox quite at contrast with anything I was feeling at the time.
Here are the guidelines I followed to re-create that dream-room in my mind:
* Imagine walking into the dream-room
(an imaginatively conjured up one would be fine too)
* Walk all around to explore
* Allow feelings to surface
* Bring awareness into all the senses
* Describe everything visually as precisely as possible
* Pause from time to time and breathe in deeply
* Go with any change of details as they occur during writing
* Write in the present tense to bring the piece to life
When I wrote the letter from the dream-room to myself, I was consistent in using the first person pronoun my ‘I’ Voice and didn’t sign off: ‘love from’, but felt for a different ending to round off.
Later I carried on with more correspondence of responses and replies until I had quite a body of letter-writing which explored the dream room and its significance more fully than I could ever have imagined.
Future postings will show other exploratory writing about my mental illnesses and how I have managed to gain a sense of containment from what were chaotic, confusing and terrible experiences.
ⓒ Monica Suswin November 2014
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (widely available on the internet) Wild Geese Selected Poems: Bloodaxe Books (2004).
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